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The Coming Elections in Mexico

The compañaros, they will continue to be active in their territory with their machetes, with sticks in order to stay alive and defend themselves. Together with our female compañeras, we will be in the front to protect our territory, our land, our identity. We are the people who live in this land, we are the people that will defend our land. We don’t have any kind of mediation or any kind of doubt [of our success]. We say: “it is us or them”.

–Member of Cabildo Comunitario

Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico.

An escalating war between indigenous fishermen and the government-backed wind farm industry threatens to boil over when elections are forced on people on June 7 in Álvaro Obregón, pitting state military and private interests against the autonomy of the indigenous locals known as Comunitarios who have seized the levers of local government in a desperate attempt to preserve their native land, culture and livelihoods.

Álvaro Obregón (or Gui’Xhi’ Ro’ in Zapotec) is a small indigenous town that sits at the entrance of the Barra of Santa Teresa. A rare and unique sand bar, the Barra of Santa Teresa took over 10,000 years to form and sits between the Lagoon superior and inferior in State of Oaxaca, Mexico situated next to the pacific coast. For years now, the company Mareña Renovables, now called Eólica del Sur, has been planning the construction of approximately 100 wind turbines on the Barra and elsewhere around the lagoon because of the consistently high-winds that come down from the eastern mountains. Álvaro Obregón is a Zapotec community that depends primarily on fishing as well as subsistence farming – including mangoes, coconuts, tamarind and a variety of fruit and vegetable crops along with seasonal work at the local salt refinery and often out-migration to northern Mexico and sometimes the United States.

Since the arrival of the wind farm companies, some land owners—specifically ejidatarios[1]— have begun negotiating and sold their land to the wind company in the year 2011-2012. This was a negotiation, I was often told, that did not include the whole town or an introduction into the communal assembly, but only the land owners in sites slated for road construction and wind turbine development. Then, as the story is often recounted, Mareña Renovables placed a chained gate and guards to regulate people’s access to the Barra and by extension the sea for fishing. This for some was a surprise and others a breach of agreement with the wind companies. A number of locals recounted these events to me, describing guards that asked for ID cards, signatures and imposed time regulations for people using the sea. People in the area found this completely unacceptable as the Barra is communal land and the sea is for the people to fish and access freely—whenever they want. This limiting and regulation of freedom was immediately met with outrage and general alarm by the people of Álvaro Obregón and surrounding villages who organized a barricade at the entrance of the Barra—near the salt refinery—and they coordinated a permanent presence to block the entrance so the wind company’s employees and surveyors could not enter. Eventually, at the request of the wind companies, 600 state police surrounded the town on two sides to attempt to disperse the group and dismantle barricade on February 2, 2013. Fighting soon ensued on this savannah like environment as the community grabbed anything they could to repel the police. The battle and skirmishes where fierce, with the community facing off with the police surrounding and subduing the locals deploying tear gas along with batons, rocks and shooting in the air while the community fought back with slings shots, rocks, bottle rockets and machetes. Some have described the people of Álvaro Obregón’s disposition as a hellish trance determined to vanquish the police and eject the wind companies from their land at any cost. At one point, when the people ran out of rocks during this battle, they resorted to using spikey sea snail shells that would cut their hands when they threw them at police—ignoring their hurt and bloodied hands during the immediate frenzy, only the repelling of the police forces was their goal. In the end of the battle, the people of Álvaro Obregón and surrounding towns successfully defeated the police using everything they had, fortunately with no fatalities, but ultimately chasing them out to neighboring towns bruised, battered and terrified. This victory marked the beginning of what will surely become a long war.

After the fighting, the entrenched relationship between the national political parties – PRI, PRD, PT and COCEI – and Mareña Renovables became clear. As it was described to me by the Comunitario’s that the only way they could protect their land and sea from wind farm encroachment was the seizure of the municipal government building and extending their fight against all political parties supporting the wind farm companies and developers. The local people wanted to institute community control with community standards, instituting their traditional form of indigenous governance— usos y custombres (customs and traditions) — which operates in the form of an assembly spokes-council consisting of different families and members of the community who meet to discuss and decide any and all important issues within the town and surrounding area. Over 1,000 people filled the center of the town peacefully forced the local government, noted for corrupt practices and inaction to stand down and sign over the town hall to the people, along with a dump truck, and two pickup trucks – one of which was a police truck. This was a big step for Álvaro Obregón to begin its fight for autonomy, attempting to vanquish external political control over their town.

Crime has always flourished in Álvaro Obregón, often attributed to the community scapegoat Marihuanos robers (pothead robbers). Nevertheless, the introduction of wind turbines created a schism and has resulted subsequently in a low-intensity civil war between the people’s Cabildo Comunitario and the Constitutionales, who claim and believe they are simply following the law and constitution of Mexico. Nevertheless, they are commonly referred to as the “Contras” (the enemy), who actually do originate from the community and stake out their constitutional position because they are supported by Juchitán de Zaragoza government and their business practices. Some view the Contras as essentially paid proxies for the political authorities and wind park developers. As the situation was explained to me, “This comunitario agencia is formed from legitimate people belonging to the community of Álvaro Obregón and they believe that the community is divided into two groups, which is a big lie. That second group that I was speaking before [the Contras], is a group that they created for political considerations and aims to bring the confusion and the uncertainty into our community.” The imposition of the state police and subsequent violence on February 2 and later confrontation at the municipality with the “Contras,” necessitated the formation of the Policía Comunitarian (Community Police[2]), which became the protector and defender of the community to help mediate crime and internal social conflict. Much different than the “police” force and hired guns representing the government of Juchitán, the Policia Comunitarian is a voluntary and unpaid initiative organized by the community to defend their land and people from what they view as political parties and their corporates sponsors’ development initiatives that are associated with foreign transnational corporations invading their town and changing their way of life and relationship with the land and sea.

Since the battle of February 2, the Juchitán regime associated with COCEI (Coalition of Workers, Peasants, and Students of the Isthmus), PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and currently led by mayor Saúl Vicente Vázquez who has continued to support and maintain the activities of the “Contras” in Álvaro Obregón. Then, on March 2, 2014, Pristas and COCEI leaders gathered in the house of local candidate Jorge Alonso and around 2:30 pm attacked the assembly of the Cabildo Comunitario with rocks, sticks and bullets with the hope of taking back the town hall. This erupted into intense fighting and shoot outs all around the city. A truck was flipped over to make barricades, rocks fell like rain, and street fighting spread throughout the town. This day has been referred to as “The Battle of Álvaro Obregón”—another battle won by the determination of the Cabildo Comunitario. Nevertheless, the Contras persisted, harassing the Comunitarians and burning down the house of General Heliodoro Charis (an important cultural symbol for the town).

Since their victory to hold the town hall, the Comunitario’s have held the space while engaging in a legal battle to achieve the status of autogestión indigena (indigenous self-governance) and the weekly skirmishes with the Contras who are fighting the Comunitario’s with the belief that the wind turbine construction will provide development, work and new opportunities to Álvaro Obregón. My experience in the region and other towns, such as La Ventosa where about 80-85 percent of the town is surrounded by wind turbines for around seven years with some wind turbines as close as 300 meters to houses. The people of La Ventosa have taught me that real and meaningful social development is actually very limited and a cause of much discontent along with the possibility of contributing to severe medical conditions, quality of life issues and other negative factors requiring further indepth research. The general consensus, after conducting a census style interview in the town with about 70 people is that if someone owns land and can secure employment, one can benefit; however, even then jobs are temporary (3months to 1 ½ years). Overall, the general benefits to the community at large tend to be limited with some paved streets and some new building—market and cultural center—that were won only after much protest and difficult negotiations. My general findings were near unanimous discontent with a few exceptions, coupled with alarming testimonies about the state of their health—the source of which is undetermined, but they are living in a town surrounded by wind turbines and high-tension wires. In my experience, the expectations of the Contras in Álvaro Obregón are misguided and miss founded and will only benefit a very small minority of people in towns associated with political parties and select unions negotiating with the wind turbine companies. I have also been told that even some of the paid Contras are against the construction of the wind farms and will fight against them is they enter into the town. This has been subsequently confirmed in interviews with a couple Contras.

Currently from what I know and understand, the wind farm development company, Mareña Renovables/Eólica del Sur, maintains a 30-year lease with three 25-year renewals on the communal land of the Barra of Santa Teresa and is building an access road to the Barra with hopes of building additional road infrastructure on its leased land. And now, it is the time for elections. The Sección 22 Teacher Union, known for its part in the 2006 Oaxacan insurrection, has called a boycott at the national level due to recent neoliberal education reforms in 2013 and the atrocities committed by the Mexican State with near impunity as is exemplified by the Ayznopa 43 case among many others. Effectively, these groups have decided not to take the war waged against them lying down and Álvaro Obregón as well as the town of San Dionisio del Mar have declared their opposition to political parties and election in their towns and likely due for renewed attacks by the Contras and state forces in their towns to oversee and force elections in these indigenous communities.

The people of Álvaro Obregón believe that their lives, culture and way of life will cease to exist if wind turbine construction is permitted on their land especially the sensitive ecological zone of the Barra of Santa Teresa. As was explained last January to a group:

“We are not saying ‘no,’ just for the sake of saying ‘no.’ We know with certainty that this project is not going to bring any kind of benefit to the community as a whole. The so well advertised ‘clean energy,’ will destroy our indigenous community. We are very conscious about everything. We are simple people as you can see, but we are determined. We are here to fight, to resist. We are rebels.[3]

If wind power has its way, enormous foundations will be dug into the Barra, which is made only of sand, vegetation and sweet water surrounded by two bodies of salt water that makes up the Lagoon Superior. The foundations will require anywhere from 70 meters to more than a kilometer deep of concrete on the Barra, coupled with road construction that will clear the land of trees and habitat. I recently heard witness accounts of oil leakages contaminating the water and surrounding land, and accounts from turbine maintenance workers in other towns who provided similar information. Additionally this leaves out the effects of the lights on the fish population, bird deaths, and what the turbines do the environment in general with their constant vibration and humming.

The upshot is this: The majority of people in Álvaro Obregón have decided that they will die before allowing companies and political parties into their village. They will fight with everything they have as they have before. With the elections looming, however, comes an announcement from the Mexican State that the military will forcefully install and supervise elections in Álvaro Obregón. This means a tense and possibly bloody situation is emerging and the people of Álvaro Obregón will need support in their struggle for autonomy against the invasion of wind turbines, political parties and the state police and military. I have recently left the Isthmus, after receiving credible information from multiple sources that a pistolaro (hired gun) has been assigned to me. This is uncomfortable, but normal for those in resistance (or friends with the people in resistance) in the Isthmus of Tehunatepec. Other cannot leave easily, nor do they want to, they know that they cannot run away from their land and sea, which is their home. They are preparing for the likelihood of a military siege in the months of June and July. Such “green” construction, it turns out, isn’t much different from many other large-scale industrial projects that altered or destroy the natural environment and the people who stand in the way of these kinds of developments.

Alexander Dunlap is currently a doctoral candidate and associate tutor in Social Anthropology, School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. His current research focus has been on the social impact of wind energy projects in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico.

Notes.

[1] Member of an ejido, which is a form of collective peasant land regime used for agriculture and regulated by the Mexican state.

[2] Please do not confuse this community police with those in the USA, England and propagated by USA as part of a state stabilization and counterinsurgency program at home and overseas. This community police are people picking rocks, sling shots, machetes and their hunting shot guns to defend themselves from police and mercenary forces.

[3] This came from a speech spoken to a group of visitors on the evening of January 18, 2015.

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